Genre: Pop Rock, Baroque Pop
Preceded by: Nonsuch (1992)
Followed by: Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) (2000)
Related to: not available yet
We’re only making plans for Nigel, we only want what’s best for him. We’re only making plans for Nigel, Nigel just needs this helping hand. You know the song, I knew the song. But only after some months of enjoying XTC’s Apple Venus Vol. 1 I discovered that that song came from a band with the same name. Of course I guessed that it must have been another obscure end seventies new wave band, as I was convinced that I had been listening to the official announcement of Brian Wilson’s Smile during my hot summer.
Swindon, South-West England, has a typical maritime climate, alternating mild winters with cool summers. So Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge, who were both raised there, must have been developing a thorough appreciation for those rare hot summer days that come around a year. The explosive peak of this process might maybe be heard on XTC’s 1986 album Skylarking. An album they could not even have imagined (I guess) 14 years earlier (at the age of 17 and 19 respectively), when they formed The Helium Kidz.
After Terry Chambers (1973) and Barry Andrews (1976) joined the band on drums and keyboard, they released their debut album White Music in 1978 as XTC. Later on that year Andrews left the band and was replaced by keyboardist/guitarist Dave Gregory, whose sixties oriented guitar playing resulted in a classic rock sound that can be heard on the third album, Drums and Wires, which contains the hit single mentioned above. While Nigel must have been happy in his life, Partridge wasn’t during the support tour of their fifth album in 1982. As he suffered from stage fright, he personally signed the end of the band’s touring history. But as four dudes from Liverpool had proven earlier, this doesn’t necessarily goes at the expense of the band’s sound.
This new studio band consisted of three members, after Chambers left one year later due to his migration to Australia and missing incomes from touring (not being a song writer). Somewhere in 1986 then, the band ran into the legendary Todd Rundgren, probably because he had produced The Band’s Stage Fright earlier. So not very surprisingly Rundgren (who was hired to launch a commercial comeback) and Partridge would clash frequently during the recording of Skylarking, an absolute pop gem. Although worth a review of its own, we travel on to 1999. XTC had released their last album in 1992, after which the band went on strike till 1998 as a result of a dispute with their record label. Again: this doesn’t necessarily goes at the expense of the band’s sound. With their own home-studios and on their own label, they started the Apple Venus project: bringing together the songs they had written during their break…
It must have been immediately clear for them that ‘River of Orchids’ had to kick off this ambitious project. Push your car from the road, walk into a forest and put on the album. What follows is a small pop opera about this beautiful world that would come to light if all roads were overgrown with flowers. A little dull and passé you might think, but even the greatest victims of today’s society might prefer walking into London on their hands instead of playing a consciousness killing game on the IPad after hearing the mind blowing, multi layered bird call from Partridge. This outstanding vocal performance is supported by some plucked cello’s at first, but when the orchids start growing and the concrete slowly disappears, all kinds of orchestral instruments are thrown in.
On ‘I’d Like That’ we run into somebody we would like to share this new world with. Less orchestration this time, but simply Partridge’s voice and an acoustic guitar, with a nice effort to introduce Paul McCartney in this idyllic scene. Talking about the Fab Four, on ‘Easter Theatre’ it even sounds like the entire Sgt. Peppers’ orchestra is with us now. Performing together with Partridge, whose vocals are again peaking here, it looks like they even deviate from the song during the chorus and start playing fragments of ‘She’s Leaving Home’. It’s alternated again with a very calm song, ‘Knights in Shining Karma’. It’s a slow ballad and in my opinion one of the least tracks on the album.
After four songs from Partridge it’s time for one of Moulding’s two songs (‘Frivolous Tonight’). Musically not as strong as the previous songs, especially because of the fact that Moulding’s voice doesn’t reach the same level as that of Partridge. However, a very recognizable song for guys who like to hang out in a pub now and then: talking about nonsense, drinking beer and telling jokes while they reveal their childlike nature. It is followed by the absolute highlight of the album: ‘Greenman’. For me it’s representative for and the midpoint of the whole album: the lyrics that describe a purist adoration for nature, the sophisticated vocals (Partridge), the richly orchestrated parts with a different instrument in every part of your ear,… But above all it’s the way the song develops during the song itself as well as the way it keeps developing while listening it over and over. Every time you hear it you’ll discover another interesting sound, another effect, another place to imagine.
‘Your Dictionary’ gives the album some variation again, as it’s another vocals + acoustic guitar song. However, it’s by far the most poppy one on the album, although it contains the most cynical lyrics of them all. This song about relational troubles is without many doubts based on Partridge’s own personal life and contains a beautiful piano part in the middle. ‘Fruit Nut’ is the other song that Moulding contributed to the album, which indicates more or less that he had a less creative seven years than his bandmate. But again, this one is kind of comical. It lyrically reminded me somehow of Brian Wilson’s ‘Vega-Tables’ but also musically, Smile (and its predecessors) is not far away.
We’re nearing the end of the album with the ninth track, ‘I Can’t Own Her’. Another intro with string arrangements here, with piano and harp joining subsequently. Good song (entirely dominated by the bombastic orchestrated parts), but no highlight. The last song that really stands out musically, is the penultimate track ‘Harvest Festival’. It’s built around (again) Partridge’s magnificent vocals (especially during the chorus) and Dave Gregory’s keys. Gregory by the way left the band during the recording of the album as he favored more guitar playing instead of all the orchestral instruments on the album. This of course made XTC in fact a two men project at that point. For us it’s also about time to leave, as ‘The Last Balloon’ is leaving. Although lyrically not bad at all, Partridge is looking one more time at this sad and materialistic world and decides to leave, it’s musically a little too elaborate in my opinion but you might disagree on that one.
So if there’s a Vol.1, there must have been a sequel, right? Although this is not always the case, there indeed was. Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) was released one year later (the original plan was to release them as one double album), and contained more (electric) guitar songs. Dependent on your taste you might prefer that one but in my view it doesn’t have the magic of Vol. 1, about which I once read in a review: ‘Apple Venus is unlikely to win XTC many new fans’. Well, this certainly wasn’t true for me and somehow I’m happy that this was my first acquaintance with the band. If only for the fact that I could not have been affected by the syndrome of thinking that an artists’ early work is pro definition better. Enjoy and dream away.
Genre: Alternative Rock
Preceded by: The Bends (1995)
Followed by: Kid A (2000)
Related to: Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
In my last year at university I had a course called ‘Science Critics’. For the orally exam I had to prepare a discussion about “something that drew your attention and could be linked to the content of the course”, which was about people wanting everything and getting nowhere by doing so, meanwhile destroying their environment. I wanted to avoid I was going to be outtalked by this grey professor about Dark Side of the Moon, so I picked Radiohead’s version of the 90’s. It was the most pleasant assignment I ever had at university. Welcome to the world of OK Computer.
The nineties were reigned by what’s called ‘alternative rock’, an umbrella term for several genres that emerged from the independent music scene of the mid eighties. So in fact there’s no specific musical style to describe the genre, basically all the bands belonging to it have only one specific thing in common: their most important instrument is the guitar. While The Pixies and Jane’s Addiction paved the way for grunge rock in the US, it were The Smiths introducing an alternative to new wave in the UK, being responsible for the renaissance of the guitar. It opened the doors for typical britpop bands like Oasis and Blur. Just when grunge as well as britpop were within an ace of death, the English rock band Radiohead released their third album: OK Computer. Radiohead quickly became kings of alternative rock, but left the genre again only shortly afterward, trading it for experimental rock on their next albums Kid A and Amnesiac.
The band, consisting of singer Thom Yorke, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, bass player Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway, already formed in 1985 but only started to perform frequently in public in 1991, after all band members (except the young Jonny) were graduated from university. Soon followed the debut album, Pablo Honey, which wasn’t that great of a success, although ‘Creep’ became a massive hit, especially in the US. It was the follow-up album The Bends which brought the band its recognition in the UK. The album was characterized by rather personal lyrics, in huge contrast to their next one and one of the landmark records of the nineties, OK Computer (obviously). The album consists in fact of two kind of songs: melodic rock songs like they made before (but greatly improved) and kinda experimental songs introducing some ambient and electronic influences. They all have one lyrical theme in common: modern alienation.
Because the sequence of the tracklist, together with the music, the lyrics and the artwork, is one of the elements that makes this album immortal, I’m going to run over it chronologically. Opening track ‘Airbag’ gives you the crying voice of Yorke supported by a sinister electronic drum beat, as the band members were great fans of DJ Shadow back then. Not a genius song, but a very solid opening song, introducing you to the theme of the album. That’s why I always consider it a sort of prologue to ‘Paranoid Android’. This one is the first masterpiece, like you’re launched in somebody’s schizofrenic head with the altering moods of aggression, desperation and hope. The multiple sections remind of The Beatles‘ ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’, mixed with the ‘slow down and explode’ music of the Pixies.
‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, is my least favorite song of the album of the album so I leave this one to you. The next gem is ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’. It’s a very naked song in the beginning, with only Yorkes voice (like later on ‘We Suck Young Blood’) and an acoustic guitar, progressing towards a climax in the end. Maybe this song reflects the spirit of the album best with Yorke singing ‘Breath, keep breathing’, ‘Sing us a song to keep us warm’ and the repeated ‘We hope that you choke’ towards the end. Some relief on the next track then, ‘Let Down’, which is driven by a very melodic, beatlesque guitar riff filled up with some nice vocal harmonies. Closing ‘side 1’ is one of Radiohead’s most famous anthems: ‘Karma Police’. It’s actually a quiete simple constuction, based around an acoustic guitar, Jonny’s piano and a very basic rock beat by Phil Selway. But the power of the song is the fact that when you whisper quietly to someone that you’re going to get him, it sounds much more powerful than if you would scream it loudly (and I don’t want to talk about The Beatles here all the time, but listen to ‘Sexy Sadie’ and compare the chord progression for yourself).
The album continues with the cold ‘Fitter Happier’, consisting of lyrics (typical nineties slogans) that are recited by a synthesized voice of a Mac. Not really a song, but totally creating the right atmosphere for the album. On ‘Electioneering’, Radiohead returns to its earlier rock sound, with guitar riffs, drum beats and Yorkes lyrics about political compromises pounding against each other. Following is one my absolute Radiohead favorites: ‘Climbing Up the Walls’. Just like ‘Exit Music’, it shapes a very dark atmosphere by its horror lyrics about serial killers and mental illness, and the powerful music with trip-hop influences. This always reminds me of the music Radiohead would later release on Kid A, Amnesiac and even Hail To the Thief. From horror to a a charming lullaby with ‘No Surprises’, considering the music with its acoustic guitar and glockenspiel. The lyrics however are about a very monotonous life in the modern world, which makes this an awesome contrasting song.
The album almost came to an end then, and after all the emptiness, bitterness and anxiety of the previous ten tracks, the future is again full of hope and lying in front of us. We were ‘Lucky’ of course, but maybe there’s still something in for us. It’s kind of a Floydian song (especially the intro) and also resembles the opening track ‘Airbag’, like this song finally explodes here, with a terrific guitar solo in the end. The album is definitely closed by ‘The Tourist’, which is (in my opinion) just like the opening song not outstanding, but a perfect clincher, easily sliding you out of the world of OK Computer.
This album is like a room with a secret camera with a different character walking in each song. That’s kind of how Tom Yorke once tried to describe it, and I can only agree with it. The interesting thing about this album is that Radiohead is searching for something, just like the characters in its songs. But the band is not searching to find something, it’s just searching because of the searching and is going somewhere nobody else went. The searching on this album resulted in an unquestionable rock classic, an album you absolutely must hear, apart from what your favorite music genre is. But to really experience the album, you have to make an effort. This is no background music, this is a documentary. (Try to) enjoy.